Pragmatism and Postmodernism

by Mike Ratliff

28 For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? (Luke 14:28 NASB)

Postmodernism : A general and wide-ranging term which is applied to literature, art, philosophy, architecture, fiction, and cultural and literary criticism, among others. Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality. For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person. In the postmodern understanding, interpretation is everything; reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually. Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one’s own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.

Postmodernism is “post” because it is denies the existence of any ultimate principles, and it lacks the optimism of there being a scientific, philosophical, or religious truth which will explain everything for everybody – a characteristic of the so-called “modern” mind. The paradox of the postmodern position is that, in placing all principles under the scrutiny of its skepticism, it must realize that even its own principles are not beyond questioning. As the philosopher Richard Tarnas states, postmodernism “cannot on its own principles ultimately justify itself any more than can the various metaphysical overviews against which the postmodern mind has defined itself.” – From Faith and Reason

circa 1864

1 : a practical approach to problems and affairs <tried to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism> 2 : an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief

Postmodernism is a term that that was claimed by the Emergent Church movement. Even though the Emergent Church movement has been absorbed into other movements such as the Social Justice and WOKE movements, this philosophy in the first part of the 21st Century has come to dominate Western thinking. In each area of thought within it we find that, invariably, pragmatism is its root. Pragmatic philosophy says that everything is relative because ultimate, transcendent truth does not exist. This makes reasoning with a pragmatist extremely frustrating. Also, there are moral and absolute standards in our society that are continually under attack and, seemingly, are crumbling under our feet all around us. The culprit behind this is Pragmatic philosophy coupled with postmodernist thinking. 

The pragmatist refuses to admit that objective truth, even if proven to exist, can be known. The more we pursue it with them, the more they reject it. Why? In their way of thinking, since truth is unknowable, the pursuit of it is a waste of time. I debated an atheist a few years ago whose main “weapon” against the Gospel as truth was that I was saying that it was the ultimate truth so I had committed myself to carrying the burden of that truth. At first I could not grasp why he was making such an issue of that. Then I finally realized that his philosophy, his mindset, held that it is insane to proclaim truth as truth because it cannot be proved.

It was at that moment in the debate that God gave me the epiphany of how radical and supernatural saving faith really is. The regenerate Christian (is that a redundant term?) has faith that is alive and believes God. This faith believes in God’s ultimate truth and accepts it. When the pragmatist confronts this, he or she cries foul. Why? This truth says that Jesus is the only way to the Father and the only way to the Son is by God’s grace through faith. There is no other way. We present this as truth.

The pragmatist is mired in relativism. This mindset says, “What ‘works’ for you is not necessarily what ‘works’ for me.” For example, former President Barak Obama has stated that people are saved who believe in Jesus, receiving Him as Lord and Saviour, but the committed Muslim or Jew who do not believe that can also be children of God. This is a denial of the very words of our Lord. This mindset refuses the claim of exclusivity that the Bible very clearly teaches. Instead, it says that ‘whatever makes one happy is true for them.’ Do you see how veracity has become subject to the one believing or disbelieving it rather than it being transcendent?

When I left my old church because it went Purpose Driven back in 2006, I gave the leadership a document that I had put together that addressed Rick Warren’s church model from the standpoint of it whether it was biblical or not. Some ‘post-evangelicals’ and I were debating not long after that. These fellows were in love with the PDC model. I invited them to read the document after I had posted it on this blog. I got some very strange responses from a few of them. One belligerently told me that he had read the document and didn’t agree with it so it was irrelevant. The debater in me commented something like this, “Your belief or unbelief in whether the document is true or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether it is or isn’t.” The moderator on “that blog” stepped in and ended the discussion right then. I have often wondered why.

Truth is regarded as that which corresponds to reality. However, the pragmatist sees truth is that which “works.” Relativism flows from this in ever increasing volumes infecting every strata of our culture. When those of us who hold to God’s truth as being true transcendently, debate the pragmatists then rational discussion is impossible. There can be no appeal to a final norm. Why? In their philosophy, since truth is defined as that which “works,” then victory goes to those with the most power. For example, if homosexuality works for a person, then he or she must gain power to silence those who, by convincing others that their behavior is unacceptable, can create cultural impediments that hinder their enjoyment. Think of this playing out in our culture continually over the last several years.

Pragmatism is short-sighted. It looks for immediate solutions without consideration for the long term. We see this in the Purpose Driven and Willow Creek church models. The process of taking an existing church and transforming it to the pragmatic model hurts those who are displaced. What happens is that it creates churches that become revolving doors with those seeking spiritual nourishment leaving while those wanting salvation without repentance coming in. However, those doing this never look at the long-term affect of their actions. This is in direct opposition to our Lord’s teaching.

25 Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, 26 “ If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28 For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish. ’ 31 Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. (Luke 14:25-33 NASB)

Our Lord commands us to count the long-term costs of following Him. Pragmatism is not of God, however, tragically, the corrupting influences of it are becoming more and more prevalent in the church with “Seeker-sensitive” worship being used to increase attendance. The goal is to get more people in the pews instead of having the congregation grow in spiritual maturity. When Churches or ministries emphasize “what works” then it will focus all of its energy on the target group while neglecting the rest. What we must do is pray and obey God in helping the church we are part of avoid slipping into pragmatism.

Soli Deo Gloria!